How Tin Pan Alley transformed the popular music industry




Tin Pan Alley represents the apex of the sheet music industry in the United States. The term refers to publishers concentrated on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. They raised marketing and commercialism to unprecedented sophistication. The popular music industry traces its history back to 18th century London. Thomas Arne and other composers wrote songs specifically for a mass audience. No one had cared so much about an unsophisticaled audience before. … Continue reading

April in Paris, by Vernon Duke




Vernon Duke didn’t expect “April in Paris” to be a hit. He had written his first complete score for a Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster, in 1932. It did not include that song. Walk a Little Faster was one of the few shows that opened in the early years of the Depression. The producer got a hold of a second-hand Parisian set and wanted a song to go with it. Nothing Duke had written fit. … Continue reading

9 odd wind instruments you have probably never seen




Over the last couple of centuries, inventors have brought out a remarkable number of odd wind instruments that somehow never became successful. Or if they did, their success didn’t last. In some cases, pieces in the standard orchestral repertoire call for one or more. There is a growing interest in restoring them for performance of this music. Ophicleide At the beginning of the 19th century, as the orchestra began to expand, only two instruments existed that could serve as bass of the brass choir: the bass trombone and the serpent. Neither was satisfactory. The serpent, a cornett-like bass instrument invented … Continue reading

Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 by George Enescu




George Enescu (1881-1955) was 3 when he heard some village fiddlers. The next day he tried to imitate the instruments. He made a violin by attaching some thread to a piece of wood and a cimbalom from some wooden sticks. He imitated the reed pipe with his lips. His parents noticed his growing preoccupation with music and gave him a toy violin with three strings when he was 4. Offended at not getting a real violin, he threw it in the fire. Once they bought him a real one, he started picking out tunes by ear, using one finger on … Continue reading

Tricky Sam Nanton and the jungle trombone




The trombone was once regarded as the voice of God and long considered grand and noble, but the early 20th century saw development of different, more raucous trombone sounds. Duke Ellington and his first great trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton developed the “jungle sound.” In Nanton’s hands, the trombone learned to growl with a plunger and mute. Ellington’s band had the reputation of having the “dirtiest” sound of any jazz band. Although many pioneers of jazz knew and loved “high class” music like opera, the early jazz audiences probably didn’t. While more “refined” audiences may have found the jungle sound … Continue reading

Music Inspired by Romeo and Juliet




William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe. No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music. In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music. This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet … Continue reading

Kid Ory, Trombonist, Businessman




Music history has no shortage of musicians with no business sense. In jazz, Jack Teagarden never led a successful band; he drank too much, was too generous with friends, and had no idea how to make contracts. Fletcher Henderson failed so miserably financially that he had to sell all of his arrangements to Benny Goodman just to get money. In contrast, Kid Ory, the legendary tailgate trombonist, displayed his business sense at the age of 8, the same time he started performing music. … Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials




Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … Continue reading

Race relations, social change, and American music




Race relations in the US are probably better than at any time in history. The recent racially motivated mass murder at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates that they are not good enough. Many simmering misunderstandings and controversies rooted in racial tension likewise show that we have a long way to go achieve racial harmony. Harmony. That’s a musical term. The history of American music reflects the history of race relations. Music has also played a role in bridging the racial divide. … Continue reading

Getting off the classical music merry-go-round




Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true. If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off. The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts. For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio. Performing organizations always seek to … Continue reading